Official Washington is consumed with the fast-approaching deadline — just seven days left! — for the so-called supercommittee to find $1.2 trillion in trims to reduce the federal budget deficit.
In a Politico/George Washington University national poll, 50 percent — yes, half the country! — said they were “not at all familiar” with the supercommittee while 38 percent said they were only “somewhat familiar” with it. That means that almost nine out of every ten Americans lack even the vaguest notion of what the supercommittee is — much less what its tasked with doing.
(Sidebar: Imagine the percentage of people who understand or have even heard of “sequestration”. Is it one percent?)
And, when people are informed about what the supercommittee actually is and is supposed to do, their pessimism about the ability of government to do much of anything kicks in.
When informed of the supercommittee’s mission, 56 percent of respondents in the Politico/GWU survey said they “strongly” believed the group would not meet its deficit reduction goal while just 11 percent said they “strongly” believed the committee would make it.
Those numbers are backed up by a new CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll out this morning that shows 78 percent of those surveyed called it “very” (42 percent) or “somewhat” (36 percent) unlikely that the supercommittee will agree to a deficit reduction plan by its Nov. 23 deadline.
“Most people think it’s all phony,” said Republican pollster John McLaughlin. “Most people want the economy fixed and jobs created so this is all Washington dysfunction and not getting done what they want.”
Context matters here. We are in a time of historically low job approval ratings for Congress and, for most people, the last time they paid any attention to Washington was during the debt-ceiling crisis. And that left a bad taste — to put it very kindly — in most peoples’ mouths.
But, what does the indifference and cynicism coursing through most Americans tells us about the fate of the supercommittee and, more broadly, efforts to “go big” and find a lasting deficit reduction solution?
First and foremost, it’s important to remember that politicians are — almost to a person — a reactive species. It’s not their fault; their livelihoods are entirely dependent on how the people of their district/state feel about them and so it’s a matter of self-preservation to be keenly aware of what those people are thinking at all times.
With the public taking a “whatever” attitude to the supercommittee, there seems little political incentive for either the members of the committee or House Members and Senators in tough seats or states to make the hard choices — Raise taxes? Cut entitlements? Both? — that independent analysts insist are necessary.
Of course, passing the buck — literally — also comes with political risk. It’s possible (if not probable) that a deluge of media coverage over the next week will raise the supercommittee’s profile to the point where a failure to act could stoke public outrage.
It’s also dangerous for Members of Congress to play to type in the supercommittee debate; yes, people don’t expect any solutions but if Congress gives them no solutions it’s possible voters will grow even more dissatisfied with their representation in Washington — although, in fairness, that’s barely possible at this point.
That creates a difficult political thicket for Members of Congress — whether they are on the supercommittee or not — to navigate.
On the one hand, people don’t care. On the other, they are already so disgusted with Washington that hand them another brickbat with which to batter you ate the ballot box next year doesn’t make much sense either. (And, yes, we just used the word “brickbat”.)
“I think the members understand what needs to be done, but they also know the country is divided and while Americas are sincere about being concerned about spending and debt, they also are wary of unintended consequences from too many cuts,” explained Fred Yang, a Democratic pollster with the firm Garin Hart Yang Research.
Put simply: It’s hard out there for a politician.